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House Democratic candidates make abortion access top focus of '24 campaigns

Kirsten Engel, an Arizona Democrat running for U.S. House, speaks during a Women's March rally in Phoenix on Jan. 20.
Caitlin O'Hara
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kirsten Engel, an Arizona Democrat running for U.S. House, speaks during a Women's March rally in Phoenix on Jan. 20.

Arizona Democrat Kirsten Engel ran and lost a 2022 House race for a seat representing the Tucson area. She's seeking a rematch against now-incumbent Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani.

She thinks this time will be different.

"My opponent now has a voting record," she told NPR, referencing Ciscomani's vote for a GOP spending bill that would back FDA rules enacted after the 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs decision that make iteasier to access the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone. She says abortion is a top-of-mind issue for voters in her district: "It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat, an independent or a Republican. Women feel very deeply about this issue, that their rights have been stripped away."

Engle is part of broader campaign efforts Democrats are launching across the country to make abortion rights a central focus of their effort to win control of the U.S. House. Democrats need a likely net gain of five seats to take control from Republicans. It's been two years since the Supreme Court threw the legal power to determine abortion access back to the states, and a series of new restrictive abortion laws have taken effect across the country.

The issue is more likely to resonate in campaigns in states like Arizona if a proposed ballot initiative to protect abortion rights in the state's constitution is put to voters on November's ballot. Abortion rights advocates are working on a similar ballot initiative in Florida, where Republicans under Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted a six-week abortion ban last year.

Democratic candidate Whitney Fox says the issue will be a driving force of her campaign to oust freshman Republican Rep. Anna Paulina Luna from her Tampa-area seat. Luna is a vocal opponent to abortion rights and has referred to herself as a "pro-life extremist." Like Luna, Fox is the mother of young children, a factor that both women have used to explain their positions on the issue.

"Now that I've got two little girls of my own, they're growing up with fewer rights than I did," Fox told NPR. "And as they get older, they deserve the freedom to make their own health care decisions without government overreach."

In Texas, Democrats have just one opportunity to flip a Republican-held seat currently held by freshman Rep. Monica De La Cruz. The likely candidate, Michelle Vallejo, says the stories of Texas women denied abortion access under the state's new restrictive abortion law are roiling voters in her district, which stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio down to the U.S.-Mexico border. Here's Vallejo: "Right now what we're facing in Texas is that fight where women and families are being pushed out of the state, forced to leave to get lifesaving care that they desperately need," she told NPR.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Richard Hudson is running the party's campaign operation this year. Asked for comment, his spokesman pointed NPR to comments Hudson made this month to Punchbowl News, in which he said Republicans need to run more clearly on the issue because otherwise, voters think the GOP party position is: "We'll throw you in jail if you get an abortion."

Hudson's spokesman additionally told NPR that Republicans will focus on what he called clear and pathetic and mainstream positions on abortion. Facing sagging approval levels for President Biden, and a generally sour national mood on the economy, abortion is one issue — and maybe the only issue — where Democrats see a clear advantage with swing voters.

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Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.